Never Have So Many Owed So Much to So Few: Reflections on an August 2013 Visit to Some Museums in Vilnius


by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud/Belgium)


I recently returned home to Belgium from a visit to Vilnius, Lithuania. As is my custom, I visited different museums where the memory of the victims of the Holocaust is kept alive. I went first to the Green House on Pamenkalnio St 12. Not easy to find for foreigners as there are few indications on the streets. I also went to the Center for Tolerance. Apart from my wife and me there was no one else in either museum at the time of our visits there (in the high tourist season in August).

Both museums have numerous exhibits, texts describe how the Jews lived in Lithuania prior to the Holocaust, they describe the events that led to the mass killings, they give information about the ghettos, the Nazi executioners and their Lithuanian helpers, display photographs ― sometimes atrocious ― documents, facsimiles of German edicts, snapshots of Jewish faces, rabbis, families, children at the time when they were still happy and believed that they would end their lives peacefully. Both museums are quite evocative, in different ways of the immense tragedy that befell the Jews of Lithuania.

But both museums were empty of visitors, empty of people curious enough to learn about that shocking history of mankind in that particular part of the world.

We also took a taxi to the Paneriai (Ponár) Memorial Museum outside the city. A site situated in a lovely wood alongside the main railway to Trakai. There too, we were the only visitors in such a place of memory, an undulating and slightly hilly blood-stained ground ― now sacred ― perhaps the smallest open ground I ever visited where so many people were killed. There were no tourist buses, no tourists or specialized groups under with experienced guides, no individual tourists flocking to these forlorn alleys, grassy flat sections and slopes, monuments, and reconstituted pits. One should remember that 100,000 people, among them over 70,000 Jews were slaughtered here. The victims were children, women, elderly and men from the Vilna Ghetto but also from other places. Communists, partisans, prisoners of war and civilians, among them Poles, Russians, Lithuanians and Belarusians, were killed here in the most beastly manner. And, when the military cards began to be stacked against the German army, the Nazis had Jewish slaves dig up the corpses and have them burned on pyres (Operation 1005). Not in the manner in which the Hindus pay their tribute to their deceased ones, with respect and dignity. Oh no! The Nazis had the decomposing corpses stacked under layers of wood, then put afire in order that there would be no physical traces of their genocide and crimes against humanity. But, after all, these Untermenschen deserved to be treated as things.

My astonishment that there were no tourists there, in such a place of massive slaughter of human beings, was the greater because I had visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with my wife in 2006 (my first visit there was in 1982, at a time of political crisis in Poland). At that symbolic site of the Shoah, there were crowds, tourists, foreigners and also whole school classes from Israel displaying the Israeli flag. When I visited Sachsenhausen and Dachau in Germany, there too, there were numerous German groups, because to acquire the knowledge of what happened during the Second World War is a mandatory subject in all German schools. Although, from interviews that the German film director Uwe Boll (supplement to the film “Auschwitz”) did with students from German high schools, it seems that the knowledge of what happened during World War II is on the wane too as some girls and boys were incapable of saying what “SS” or “Hitler” stood for, or in which period World War II even took place.

While in Vilnius I also went to the Genocide Victims’ Museum which is conveniently situated at the very beating heart of the city, on the main boulevard, Gedimino. This museum is listed as part of “Essential Vilnius” in the booklet “Vilnius in your Pocket” available in all hotels and tourist information centers of the city. This museum was really packed! On all three levels of that building, the former headquarters of the Gestapo and the NKVD (KGB), including the smaller side rooms, the confined corridors and the cells in the basement, you had to elbow your way through in order to be able to see the exhibits. One has first to understand that “Genocide” in the Lithuanian version of the word is exclusively related to the crimes the Soviets committed before World War II (Lithuania was annexed by the USSR in June 1940, as were the two other Baltic states), then during the long years of enslavement by the organs of the repressive institutions (NKVD, NKGB, MGB, KGB).

There are numerous exhibits, pictures, texts, facsimiles of documents, edicts, showing the repressive manner in which the Soviet Union dealt with the Lithuanians who disagreed with its policy, fought against the country or were thought to be enemies of the State. In the basement, there are cells where the organs kept their prisoners before executing them or sending them in exile or in the gulag. There is a facsimile of a letter (in Russian) of Lenin to Dzerjinsky asking him to create the Cheka (so we directly know from where and whom this very evil originated). We saw a young girl make the sign of the cross in front of a picture of slain “forest brothers.” On a plaque, it is said that 21,500 of these forest brothers and their supporters were killed. There is a whole myth around these men and women who took it upon themselves to fight against the USSR. When one enters the bookshop of the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania on the beautiful old town street Didžioji (Broad Street) one is struck by the quantity of books ― mostly in Lithuanian ― about the heroic forest brothers and a miniscule number of books on the Holocaust, the actual genocide that occurred in the country. They were certainly courageous men these forest brothers but I never understood why they came to believe that with a few dozens of thousands fighting against the USSR they could have performed what the Wehrmacht with its 10 million-strong army failed to do during four years of tough and bloody battles.

Thus, in the Genocide Museum at the very heart of Vilnius, I saw attentive tourists. The atmosphere was one of empathy, awe, respectful contemplation, understanding, participation, comprehension. There were no loud conversations or the type of strong utterances that one normally associates with most tourists lacking culture.

In the basement, a surprise! One tiny room (about 8.75 square meters) was also packed, but for another reason. In this room devoted to the Holocaust in Lithuania, added only in 2011 after many international protests, there was a limited amount of pictures to be seen, sparse explanations about the Holocaust, but practically no place to stand. Most shockingly, even this “Holocaust” cubicle in the basement praises the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), the murderous fascist sworn-to-Hitler organization that unleashed the Lithuanian Holocaust as having actually “restored order.”

And particular picture was not there, though. In the tiny basement Holocaust room of the huge museum on “Genocide” that otherwise ignores the Holocaust.

The picture taken of a young man that a colonel in the staff of the Germany’s Northern Army Group saw in Kaunas on June 27, 1941, a man and situation he described in these words:

“On the concrete courtyard there was a blond man aged around 25, of medium height, who was taking a rest and supporting himself on a wooden club which was as thick as an arm and went up to his chest. At his feet lay 15, 20 people who were dead or dying. Water poured from a hose and washed the blood into a drain. Just a few paces behind this man stood around 20 men who ― guarded by several armed civilians ― awaited their gruesome execution in silent submission. Beckoned with a curt wave, the next one stepped up silently and was (…) beaten to death with the wooden club and every blow met with enthusiastic cheers from the audience.”

(“The Dark Continent: Hitler’s European Holocaust Helpers” in Der Spiegel 05/20/2009; see sourcing in E. Klee, W. Dressen, v. Riess (ed), The Good Old Days. Foreword by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Konecky & Konecky: N.Y. 1988, p. 28)

Of course, the victims were Jews, real victims of genocide this time. What do the Germans, “Der Spiegel” in particular, a very neutral and informative weekly, had to write about Hitler’s Holocaust Helpers?

“Of course only Hitler and his entourage or the army could have stopped the Holocaust. But this doesn’t invalidate the argument that without helpers, countless thousands or even millions of the approximately six million murdered Jews would have survived. In the killing fields of Eastern Europe, there were up to 10 local helpers for every German policeman.” (ibid)

I find quite ridiculous the use of the word “Genocide” by the Vilnius museum. Genocide is a compound word coming from the Greek word “genos” (= race) and the Latin verb ‘caedӗre’ (= to kill). It is thus ‘the deliberate extermination of a race or other group’. Stalin, his successors and the organs committed grave crimes in the name of Communism. These people were mad, paranoiac and bloodthirsty monsters, craving for power and the feeling of absolute superiority power gave them. They killed dozens of millions of men and women in the course of 70 years of Communism in all Soviet republics but also in the friendly socialist states. Yet, Stalin never said or wrote that he had wanted all Lithuanians dead as, for example, Hitler did on January 30, 1939, in a speech in front of the learned assembly of Nazi party and army leaders in the Reichstag, when he prophesized that in case of a renewed world war (that the Jews would have caused…), this would mean the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.

Thus, after having seen the Lithuanian places of worship to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and the Soviet regime, I tried to understand why one side of the killings in that country is and remains so popular and such a great touristic attraction, while the other side – where and when around 95% of the local Jewish population was eradicated in just 3 years – remains mute, deserted, lacking of interest, of visitors. I saw the same lack of interest and visitors when I visited the “Museum of the Jews of Latvia” in Riga, and the same enthusiastic crowds visiting the “Occupation Museum” (also dealing chiefly with the Communist crimes, a small section being devoted to the Holocaust, and, chiefly, about the Arājs Kommando) in the same city.

Why is there such a disparity in interest and concern about victims of Communist and Nazi victims of totalitarianism?

First of all, the popularity of the places of worship of the victims of Communism is neither difficult to explain nor to understand.

(1) The block of the former Communist East-European countries, as well as the West-European block united under the atomic umbrella of the NATO, were fierce enemies of the USSR. Their populations, old and young, grew up with the danger of the Red Peril. “The Gulag Archipelago” was a huge success in the West, even if the great majority of the people never read it but they had heard about it and heard about the grave crimes committed under Stalin and his successors. For the majority of the populations both in Eastern and Western Europe, the Soviets, but even the nowadays Russians, remain uncivilized people, criminals or descendants of criminals.

(2) The Iron Curtain disappeared less than two and a half decades ago, so most inhabitants of the former Soviet Republics still have in mind the horrors they saw and the horrors their parents and grand-parents saw, the tales remain ardently anti-Soviet, fostered by well-aimed propaganda and disinformation.

(3) The bulk of historical research, funding, documentation and publicity in the former East-European countries has centered in the recent decades in digging up the “Truth” about the crimes committed in the name of Communism. This unilateral focus has led, on the one hand, to a lesser publicity with matters related to the Holocaust, and a scholarly covering-up of the involvement of local Nazi helpers in the mass killings.

As for the present disaffection that befalls the Jewish places of worship and remembrance, I see the following reasons:

(1) The bulk of the historical research on the Holocaust has always been in favor of the deportation by death trains, the death camps, the gas chambers, the ovens, situated in Poland, of which Auschwitz-Birkenau remains the vivid and eternal symbol. The mass killings perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen with the help of the local Hilfswilliger in the former USSR Republics have neither been well researched nor well publicized, especially in Western Europe. Of Raul Hilberg’s monumental work on “the destruction of the Jews of Europe”, only 100 pages out of ca. 1450 are devoted to the mobile killing units, their methods and their accomplices. Only recently was one important work on the Einsatzgruppen published in France, and a well-researched documentary by the same author shown on public French television (Einsatzgruppen’ by Michaël Prazan, Éditions du Seuil, France, September 2010, documentary of the same title).

(2) Israel has other worries now with the Palestinians, Syria, Iran, antisemitism in Europe, mainly from the extreme-right movements and local Arab populations, than to try to restore some dignity, give funding, supervise the Jewish places of memory that are now disaffected in the Baltic States.

(3) The Holocaust has been a ‘hot’ topic for 68 years now. There is a sense of fatigue even among historians and Nazi-hunters. The Frenchman and lawyer Serge Klarsfeld is of the opinion that with old criminals of war, there is no legal sense any more in having them put to trial, while Efraim Zuroff, of the Wiesenthal Center, remains steadfast in his opinion that all war criminals should be tried whatever their age. At the time of the annual Nazi and fascist inspired marches in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, there are never any items to be seen or read, neither in the TV news nor in the newspapers of West Europe. This scandal remains invisible to the largest part of the populations of the EU because few people are knowledgeable about these facts, write or talk about it, and further, due to the excess of trivial news, often, there are no means of having anything about it published at all.

(4) And last but not least, the Jewish eyewitnesses are dying. Little by little, they are disappearing from the face of the earth. And in some countries, as for example, in the Baltic States, they barely number a few thousands inhabitants, not enough to emulate a revival of Jewish culture and to reach its former apex as, for instance, was the case in Lithuania, the “Jerusalem of the North.” And with them are the traces of these horrible crimes are also disappearing, because, in fact, few people, even Jewish, are still fit enough to visit the worship places, to talk openly about that tragedy, to write about it, or to teach the terrible lessons of the past to the younger generations.

There was a time, just after the war in Germany, when the people said ‘Wir haben es nicht gewußt’ (We have not known it). Soon, in most of our countries, in East and West Europe, most people will say, when confronted to Holocaust photographs or documents, ‘We did not know it’ (or, perhaps, ‘We have forgotten!’).

This is a sad time and a sad acknowledgment of failure to see that millions of victims have been put in the backend of history. Even, if a few of us still remain to keep their memory alive.

This entry was posted in Exotic Jewish Tourism, Genocide Center (Vilnius), Lithuania, Litvak Affairs, Museums, News & Views, Opinion, Politics of Memory, Roland Binet. Bookmark the permalink.
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